Saturday, October 16, 2010

a learning community

Some wise friends have asked (and I hope future interviewers will too) what I've learned here.  As the year is nearing it's close, I am happy to reflect on the many lessons that the learning community of Agahozo-Shalom gave me.  In a couple of categories, here's some of the things ASYV has taught me.

some really tangible lessons:
1) How to jimmy a lock.  I break into my and others' rooms extremely frequently, as well as my own, just to get my work done.
2) How to save frogs, and why to save frogs.  A lizard in your room can survive, but a frog will die without moisture and that is gross and sad.  Saving frogs is no easy task, as they hop around a lot, but with some skillful maneuvering every frog can make it back outside. 
3) How to hoe.  Thank you members of Patrice Lumumba family.

some less tangible, but potentially more important lessons:
1) Even if my ideas are excellent, and will make everyone happy, everyone still would likely rather not be told them.  Everyone likes to be heard, so give everyone a chance to speak up and have their ideas considered before making a change that affects them.  Someone remind me of this when I have kids and again when I'm just a few steps away from achieving world peace.
2) I don't work in the clinic. In other words, there's nothing life or death urgent in my work.  So I should walk rather than run, as a good friend once told me.  In the end it usually takes the same amount of time, and if I run I spend more time waiting and cursing, whereas if I walk I get to see the birds along the way (this is both metaphorical and very literal).  This is a big jump from my "everything is urgent" mentality of the DC activism world, and it will be interesting to reconcile the two.
3) I have a culture that I got from my upbringing and history, and it's very different from other people's cultures.  While I still believe that people are the same, more or less, and have the same basic goals, I've learned that cultural differences are very real, and should not be underestimated.  That doesn't mean that they should ever impede collaboration, but they should certainly be honored if collaboration is to work.

I've learned much more, including how to expect the most from people, how to teach about the present perfect tense, and how to find family in 16 teenagers.  Mostly I've learned that most things I thought I knew were only partially true, at least here, and that if I want to keep knowing things, I'd better be prepared to keep learning, probably forever.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Would You Like Tikkun Olam with that?

Giving ain't easy.  As a cash-strapped 20-something I frequently feel compelled to give to causes, but can't bring myself to give more than the occasional small donation.  And, I'm sure, many 20-somethings join me in occasionally failing to give because we think that our small donation is "too small to make a difference."

Well, here at Agahozo-Shalom, our kids find no such obstacles.  Par example:

This winter our director told the kids about a country not unlike theirs that had been devastated by an earthquake. Within a few weeks and with a few starter ideas from the staff, the kids were well on their way to raising money to help the kids of Ha-i-ti (how we pronounce it here).

The kids gave up meat for two weeks, asking that the village instead donate the money to Haiti.  The kids and staff donated their personal funds, and the canteen gave all pencil sales profits to the cause.  In the end a village of Rwandan orphans raised $800 for Haiti.  We sent the money, along with cards from the kids, with the JDC's envoy to Haiti.

Amazed?  Me too, and it continues:

My co-adviser to the Canteen Club and I had just completed interviews of all of our club members asking them what they most want to do in life, in hopes of getting some ideas about how we can use the club to help them learn about things they are interested in.  Many of the kids expressed interest in helping other kids like themselves, with some even explaining that they wanted to be like Anne Heyman, the founder of our village.  As we created new projects for the canteen based on these interviews, we asked these kids to be in charge of the canteen's tikkun olam (more on this phrase later).

They handily took on the challenge deciding to collect money for school supplies for kids in the surrounding village of Rubona.  Now, whenever the canteen is open, the kids ask customers (or sometimes sternly encourage customers) to give their change to the cause.  They've also increased the price for Fanta such that 10 Rwandan francs from each Fanta sale goes to the tikkun olam fund.

Why are these kids so awesome and able to give?  I could hypothesize for hours, but two environmental factors surely contribute:

1) Rwanda is a country in which giving is not seen as optional.  It is not uncommon to meet a woman with 2 or 3 surviving biological children and 3 or 4 adopted children.  It is not uncommon to for distant relatives, or even strangers to pay an orphaned child's school expenses.  Whenever I express my amazement at this giving culture, they explain that it is what they must do in a country where needs are immense. 

2) Tikkun Olam, or the concept of repairing the world taught in Judaism, is a major tenet of the philosophy here at Agahozo-Shalom.  The village encourages the kids first to practice Tikkun HaLev, or repairing their hearts, and then Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.  We talk about the concepts a lot here in the village, and the kids also live them through therapeutic activities and, as they get older, through programmed Tikkun Olam activities in the community surrounding our village.  Every Tuesday, our older kids go out into the community and plant gardens for people with AIDS or fix walls for widows.  They help out at the local clinic and teach kids at the nearby school.  Every term we hold a fundraiser to fund the kids' Tikkun Olam projects and the kids and staff have a ball getting the funds together.

Wow, right?  These kids didn't let their small donations scare them away from giving, and now neither can ours.  In such spirit, where's your favorite place to donate your small change?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Very 5th of July Blog

As you can see by the title, I wrote this blog a long time ago.  BUT, who doesn't want to read about what we once thought about the present?  Rwanda's presidential election already happened, with almost no opposition to the incumbent President and with some upheaval beforehand.  You can read about it here, or just check out my post that I wrote about 5 weeks before the election to give you a sense of politics in Rwanda.

Normally I wouldn't write a blog post in the middle of a work day like this.  But, today isn't a work day.  It's a holiday.  Who knew?

Yesterday was Rwanda's Liberation Day - the 16th anniversary of the RPF's entry into Kigali, marking a key endpoint to the 1994 genocide.  My friend explained that for years and years before that date many were barred from entering Kigali, especially Tutsis (interestingly, on the way to Kigali this weekend, we were barred from entry until we showed a guard our IDs...and one man without an ID was removed from the bus).  So today, in his morning radio address, the President announced that everyone should take an additional day off for the holiday today.  Since I'm not so excellent at listening to the radio here, especially in the early morning, I showed up at a mostly empty office today.

Sound a little different from what you are accustomed to in the U.S.A.?  It is different.  Rwanda's democracy faces a lot of obstacles, and even without those, the vision for a Rwandan democracy is different from what we'd likely yearn for. 

A few weeks ago, in an effort to educate the kids on civics in advance of the August presidential elections, the village celebrated "Democracy Day."  The kids had spirited discussions on what sort of democracy they value.  In one group conversation, one of the kids remarked that an electoral result of 60-40 is a big problem.  How, he wondered, could a ruler say he is the leader when 40% of the country oppose him?  I piped up, saying that I value a strong opposition, as it keeps the leader from thinking he or she can do anything.  Other kids questioned whether in a country of diverse viewpoints it would be possible to have a leader elected with more than 90% of the vote.

Also at issue was political parties.  In the last year, a number of political parties in Rwanda have been barred from registering to participate in the upcoming presidential elections.  One woman's campaign was called off after she was arrested for promoting "genocidal ideology."  While some Rwandans lament the lack of a multitude of options among political parties, while others noted that in a post-conflict state, it was hard to tell which political parties were actually masked militias, and thus supported the limitations.

I like to compare Rwanda's current status to America's in 1796.  Right now the incumbent President is running for his second term, of two he is currently allowed to hold.  In seven years his time will be up, and we will see if he gives up power, and if it's done in a contested election.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Muchakamuchaka and Cultivating

Last Saturday, I arose to the sound of teenage boys yelling "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO".  At 5am.  And so I was awake, and my beloved neighbors (really - I love the excitement of living next to these guys) unknowingly got me to rejoin a Saturday morning ritual in the village that I'd been skipping (in favor of sleep...a right I reserve to keep in the future) - Muchakamuchaka.

Every Saturday at 6am, the kids in the village (often begrudgingly, but sometimes not so) gather outside their houses for an early morning run.  A staff member - usually a security guard - leads them in some stretches, and then they are off.  I am not ever one for running, but I think I could make running part of my life if I was always ran surrounded by 40 kids doing cheers.  As we run (at a very Micaela-acceptable pace, by the way) the kids take turns leading the cheers, which, according to my crude translation, seem to be about water, Rwanda and who knows what else.  I never really know what they are saying, but I try to yell AMAZE  (water) at the right times like the rest of the kids. It's awesome.  By the time we've run around the village twice, I'm exhausted, yet somehow exhilarated...enough to get me to blog at 7am!

After muchakamuchaka is farm - an activity I also attend only periodically (for both of these traditions both attending AND not attending are rewarding choices for me...sometimes much needed sleep and sometimes much needed about win win!).  

A lot of times farm time is a time for the kids to get a good haha out of my mediocre hoing skills (improving, improving) and a time for us to swap songs (Rwandan ones for English ones).   It's also a time for us to make a lasting impact on the village, as we clear the weeds from the football field or plant jacaranda trees that will someday path the walkway to the school (please note that farm time does not always involve the farm).  Last week, as we hoed away massive amounts of brush (Bush was is fun) a kid and I discussed entrepreneurship in a place with diminishing resources.  As we cleared brush on top of a mountain, he and I brainstormed about what new jobs could be created in Rwanda's cities.  The kids often call what we are doing during farm time "cultivating" (a word made significantly more beautiful if you hear it in a Rwandan accent).  I think it's an excellent way to describe the goal of Saturday mornings, and it's usually how I feel when I fall down into my bed after I've been cultivated.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Jobs in the Gulf of Mexico

Dear Mr. President,
I know you don't have so much time to read my blog (maybe only once a week, right?), but, when you get the chance, I have a story and an idea for you.

While traveling around Rwanda over the last month, I've seen a curious sight.  Hundreds of workers digging ditches, taking work breaks midday, and holding cables that look like red, gold and green ribbons along the side of the road. 

Why do these workers and ribbon-cables flank my rides to and from Kigali, you ask?  These workers are laying fiber-optic cables with the purpose of bettering Rwanda's internet connectivity.  This big investment may reap big rewards if it encourages more businesses to work in Rwanda, but I'm more excited about the immediate rewards.  Hundreds and hundreds are being employed to lay these cables, so this investment is improving lives in the short-term. 

This leads me to our own country.  I am, like so many others, worried about the long-term effects of the oil spill on our Gulf's ecosystem and the surrounding environment.  But I'm even more worried about the people who've lost jobs that depended on the Gulf's healthy waters.  After Katrina and the recession, another setback was the last thing the Gulf Coast economy needed.

While many fishermen and others no longer have livlihoods due to the spill, they do have something else quite unique.  They have a deep understanding of the waters the oil is currently polluting. While oil spill clean-up and tracking may not be their original training, they are particularly well suited for this task.  They know their way around the Gulf and its wildlife.

I see that in your proposed legislation you provide for funding for further inspections and environmental studies, as well as unemployment benefits and training for those who have lost jobs.  Can we instruct the employment training centers to train workers with the skills needed to address, track and ameliorate the spill's environmental impact?  Can we get these former fishing experts jobs in clean up, environmental tracking and seafood inspections? New skills are needed in the Gulf, and the recently unemployed men and women who once sailed and fished those seas are well-prepared for the job. 

One more step, to turn this short-term job solution into a long-term community strengthening plan.  How about getting these workers together to start to plan long-term development for their area?  We don't know how long it will be before the Gulf can have a fishing economy again, but something innovative can replace this economy.  Let's let these guys begin to work on it.

Thanks for your time.  Let me know how I can help.

PS-Also, thanks for honoring Paul McCartney. Watching the White House rock out to the Beatles was too awesome!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Murambi Genocide Memorial

Last weekend my belief that we can prevent conflict was shaken while my desire to figure out how to do it was strengthened.  After my visit to Murambi Genocide Memorial, all I could think was "this could happen again."

Murambi was supposed to be a technical school, built on a beautiful hill in southern Rwanda.  During the genocide up to 65,000 Tutsis from the region took refuge there after they were told that the church they were hiding in was unsafe.  In reality, it was a plot to concentrate them.  They stayed there for two weeks without water or electricity, and on April 21st, a mass attack left almost 45,000 dead as many more died after an initial escape. 

The memorial consists mainly of the school itself, and inside, on bed frames and tables, hundreds of preserved skeletons and remains of the people they had found in the mass graves that were created.  It is horrifying to see, as you can clearly distinguish children, clothes, and even hair.  Perhaps the saddest part of the memorial is the people who have family there. I've met a number of people, including our guide, whose families are there, sometimes unidentified due to bodily decay, but somewhere visible to the public.  One survivor, whose story can be found here, explains why he works at the memorial (taken from the memorial website):

"I endure it because there’s no alternative, but it’s really hard and scary for us to describe the things we witnessed. I also felt the need to take care of my family until they are buried, so I protect them. And there are people who need to know what happened here at Murambi and I explain to them."

It seems like the massacre at Murambi happened a little too easily.  Tens of thousands, in just a few days, concentrated and killed, a full two weeks after the mass killing in Rwanda began, and even more weeks after UN officials were warned of weapons stockpiles.  If the Murambi massacre could happen so easily even while the world had warning, what's to say that anywhere, where the right confluence of factors occurs, can be safe from atrocities, that develop quickly to a massive scale?

Having met the people who work there, I can only say that my own burdens that drive me towards preventing mass atrocities, feel like feathers compared to their burdens.  I also know that my own conviction to prevent this from happening again is stronger, and will be followed with greater resolve.

Someone else we know also wants to prevent conflict, but with pelicans to save and elections to stump for, he might need some reminding.  Read Obama's leaked National Security Strategy, and make sure he knows we all have an interest in him following through on his commitment to preventing mass atrocities.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

New Birth Control

As discussions of Don't Ask Don't Tell's implications and possible repeal abound back home (write your Congressperson here), we too discussed homosexuality here at the village this week.

Every Wednesday the debate club chooses a topic and each family has a hearty discussion around it.  In the past, debates have been about uniforms and government and this week, homosexuality.

I was a little nervous about how this debate would go down.  I've heard some pretty anti-gay statements in the village, and, in nearby Uganda, a bill recently considered punishing homosexuality with death.

To my surprise, although many of the kids had deeply differing views, they agreed on one topic.  Respect.  After they offered their initial views, ranging from "it's wrong" to "it's an illness" to "is it an illness?" to "God didn't intend it" to "its great" to "why not?" I offered my own view.  I told them the same story I told in preschool (ok probably a lot more eloquent), about how in my family and in my community being gay is normal, and to me, it's not about whether you think it's wrong or right, but that you have to respect everyone, and create a tolerant space for everyone (ok I admit it, I think in preschool I just yelled A MAN CAN MARRY A MAN! not so similar).

The kids were totally into it.  "Of course we must respect them," they explained.  So obvious to them, when it is so not obvious to so many others.  Then, after a very curious question and answer session, where they asked about gay adoption and things of the sort, they resumed the debate.  My favorite answers included:

-Being gay is a good thing, because you won't get pregnant if you don't want to.  Pretty relevant answer to Nicholas Kristof's recent article on the effects of little birth control in Africa. 

-Why not experiment?  It is how we found straight sex too!

And my absolute favorite, of course was

-I can't say if it is right or wrong!  It's someone else's belief and hope.

Basically they were open minded, respectful, and curious.  Of course some of them believe homosexuality is wrong, but they seem to understand that that doesn't mean we can treat homosexuals poorly.  To me, this is a huge deal, and a huge lesson for so many others.